On a recent episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, Peter did a short interview with New York Times writer Jim Rutenberg to discuss a couple of big stories he recently posted. Rutenberg wrote about the phenomenon of Russia Today, which is a Russian version of — in some ways — CNN or Al Jazeera. His portion of the podcast begins around the 53-minute mark.
You can read some of the highlights from the interview here, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Peter Kafka: Welcome, Jim Rutenberg. He’s a media columnist at the New York Times. Hey, Jim.
Jim Rutenberg: Hey, thanks for having me.
I wanted to have you on briefly to talk about two stories you wrote in the last week. They’re related. Let’s see if we can figure out the connection. First one is called “RT, Sputnik and Russia’s New Theory of War,” second one, in your mediator column, “Facebook knows more about Russia’s election meddling. Shouldn’t we?” Jim, how did you end up on the Russia beat this week?
It’s not something that happened. I’ve actually been fascinated by RT for years, and even before it really exploded in January of this year with the United States intelligence community fingering them as part of a vast Russian influence network operating here in the United States, I had been talking to them about doing something bigger. And then when the CIA or intelligence report hit, I called them.
Wait, wait, stop one second. Tell people what RT is, because I think a lot of people don’t know what it is or only have a vague idea because they’re not watching it.
Good point, and a lot of them aren’t. RT is — was, used to be known as — Russia Today, and it’s basically Russia’s answer to Western media. In the United States, in the U.K., they started their own 24-hour cable network to operate in foreign.
It’s their version of Al Jazeera.
Al Jazeera, or they would say CNN because they insist CNN is no different than a government-run network.
Right. It’s designed to be watched in the U.S., in Western Europe, it’s financed by the Russian government, it has almost no viewers in the United States.
Very few viewers. They have some polling, that it’s not the way we do Nielsen ratings, but it’s ... Ipsos polling found that they had, I don’t know, like eight million viewers per week, who knows what that means.
Exceptionally generous. It’s a barely rated cable channel, so why is it important for you? You went to Russia to write about this thing, for a big chunk of this year, you spent a lot of time on this. Why write about a barely watched cable channel?
Because the truth is that without social media, I wouldn’t care about it, but with social media, Facebook and Twitter, and that broader network of Russian influence agents on Facebook and Twitter, RT becomes very much part of the mix and it’s the part of the mix of Russian influence that they will talk about.
It’s out there on the surface.
It’s on the surface. They’re up front about it. Yes, this is our way too, as Vladimir Putin put it, in terms of RT, to “break up” the Anglo-Saxon information streams.
You’ve got a quote from his press secretary, he’s even bolder. He says, it’s war.
He said it’s an information war.
They call it a hybrid war or whatever. It doesn’t matter, it’s war. That’s his quote.
This is our instrument of violence.
He says of RT, it’s “an army from the other side.” In terms of Anglo-Saxon media.
It’s this barely watched cable channel, financed by the Russians. Both you and the American intelligence community say well, this is actually in the middle of Russia’s overt war against the U.S. conducted, it’s an information war. The stuff that starts on the cable channel ends up on Facebook in various forms. Is that a fair way of putting it?
It is. Though to be fair, RT, they have a mix of programming that you would look at it and say okay, there’s Larry King who has a show on RT. There’s Ed Shultz, a former MSNBC anchor who has a show on RT. He’s changed since he was on MSNBC. He no longer rails against Vladimir Putin.
There’s some randomness in the mix. They used to have Julian Assange had a show there. As you point out, it’s not always pro-Russian, it’s not always pro-Trump. There’s a lot of lefty stuff there. It seems like the true line is, let’s put out news that undercuts the idea of mainstream America, and establishment America.
Yes. Over the years, it’s also found a place where it has found an audience here is in the realms of on the left maybe with the Occupy movement, but on the right, is it home, where’s Alex Jones sometimes? He’s frequently been on their air, and early on especially they say they’re cutting it out on this level, but they would do 9/11 truthers. Give them some airtime. It’s often about playing off the fringes, and it finds its place in the sort of outer poles of our political debate.
As you said, it was mentioned in the American intelligence findings at the beginning of the year. It’s carried on traditional cable carriers. Comcast, etc. I’m not sure if Comcast, but the big carriers carry it. Are they getting any blowback for ... now people realized what this thing is?
They are getting some blowback, but I want to chat on a very good story the Journal did about their carriage. Within the last couple of months, what the Journal found — which was fascinating — was that in some cases they have gotten themselves onto free over-the-air broadcast channels, it’s sort of leased space with broadcast channels in various markets. Meaning that the Comcasts of the world must carry them under the must-carry rules.
They’ve exploited some of the rules that government broadcasting and cable carriage in the U.S., which ... and that’s true onto the piece you wrote about Facebook as well.
Just curious about the reporting of this story. You spent time in Russia, I was asking you off-air if you’ve got any background there, you don’t.
When you parachute into a country like this, and specifically Russia, what do you do to prepare yourself? It’s not necessarily a welcome environment for a Western journalist, certainly not for journalists broadly. What did you do to prepare?
Well, first, getting the visa was hard, and we want to follow all the rules. We have a bureau there that I don’t want to interfere with them. I don’t want to be careless, reckless, so getting the visa was hair-raising.
You don’t want to create problems with the Times journalist in Russia.
Not from my colleagues. If I play around with the visa, it could hurt them with their visas. The Russian visa offices in New York made me wait — literally, I didn’t get the Visa completed till the day before my flight.
Then there’s the issue of a fixer. You need someone on the ground who can help you because I still can’t say hello in Russian. You need someone on the ground.
I was going to say “pajowsta.” I don’t know if that’s correct. I don’t think it is.
I took first semester Russian twice.
You don’t speak Russian. Neither do I, we’ve established, so you need someone to guide you through there. What do you do to protect yourself either physically or in terms of protecting your iPhone or whatever other equipment you’ve got?
Physically there was no issue whatsoever. I took a travel phone with me and a travel laptop. The truth is, the week I was there, Rex Tillerson was there. His first visit to Moscow as a Secretary of State. If there’s any surveillance happening, I’m sure it was taken up by the American delegation. I had a sense of security in that regard.
Everyone you talked to in the piece — you’ve got copious quotes on the record — they seem very happy to have you writing about them. It seems like getting access to write about RT and Sputnik, which is their sub-brand. They’re excited to have you do it or at least happy to have you do it.
I would say, especially Dmitry Peskov. Vladimir Putin’s spokesman was clearly excited to talk about the subject in a meta way, or do I say macro way. His office assistant said no one’s really asked him to wax on about his media theory. He was not a Western journalist and he was really smart about it. Clearly they’re smart about it.
His argument was to me, fascinating in parts that got a little less pickup, was this idea that every ... the economy has moved on from being commodity-based so much. It’s often perception-based, and that changes, everybody’s interest realigned. Information is everything and so there’s an information war, and that information war is about a new jockeying for power and position.
And he maintains, Russia is only responding to western media meddling in its backyard forever. It’s only responding to other threats, but my favorite thing he said was look at someone like Kim Kardashian and talking about how easy it is to manipulate opinion, all of her Twitter followers, man, if she ever were political, imagine the power she would have with no intelligence service, no military. Just the way they were thinking about it, and hearing that was to me just fascinating.
Right. They’re again out front saying, yeah, we’re in there. We’re trying to manipulate the media for gain — in this case, political gain. The same thing as Kim Kardashian promoting her butt. That’s the weekend story from the magazine and then on Monday in the Times, on your mediator column, you’ve got this piece going after Facebook, specifically for not being as upfront as you think they should be about Russia’s involvement. Again the thrill on there.
Your argument is they either can or should know more about what’s going on in terms of what happened on Facebook, in terms of Russian folks buying ads, spreading this information, and they should share that information with us. Do you think that’s going to happen?
I actually think it is going to have to happen. There’d been reports from over the weekend that Bob Mueller, the special counsel has gotten their data about this campaign, this alleged Russian campaign, and there’s just mixed reports, that this required a search warrant. No matter what — I’ve covered politics most of my career, especially political advertising — and when there’s a shady ad that there were questions about how it was financed and it didn’t seem fair, our system was able to look at it, try to figure out who the funding source was, understand what it had said, where it was wrong. That’s how our system works.
There’s rules about it, and by the way, this may happen after the fact, and maybe by the time you get around to figuring out who financed that ad it’s after the election, but you can usually figure it out, harder now I think with Citizens United. But eventually you can do it.
Yeah. By the way, television stations have to keep records that anyone in the public can see. Literally anyone can see within certain windows close to elections who bought what ads, maybe who bought it as like Citizens for Blue Skies and you have to figure out who they really are, but there’s a record of this, and there’s talk now on Capitol Hill about making social media properly account for this kind of advertising as well.
Facebook, it seems like one of the arguments they’re making is look, legally we can’t give you more information than we’ve given you already, which is very vague. If Mueller compels a subpoena, we can give him more, but we’re limited in what we can actually provide. Do you think that can get changed with the law? Do you think they can just get out ahead of it and just say, “In this case, we’re going to tell you all about it, but it’s a one-time-only thing.”
Not everyone is convinced that their legal argument in this case — as is often the case with law — is a slam dunk. There’s probably more they can share, and it always ... There seems with Facebook on this issues that whatever the legal constraint also happens to fit nicely with their public relations imperative here. Is it really in their interest to show potentially really nasty divisive ads or Facebook post that were completely false? It’s not great branding for them. They’ve been fighting with this. Defending the idea that they were a receptacle for fake news for months now. I don’t know. Something tells me ...
Zuckerberg said, I don’t know why you’re talking to us, we had nothing to do with it, and eventually over time, all right, there’s a little bit more. Like you said you covered politics for a long time, you cover media as well. There’s this meme bouncing around that says you know what, it’s finally Silicon Valley’s time in the barrel, some combination of Amazon and Twitter and YouTube and Facebook is finally drawing scrutiny from the politicians. They’ve been unregulated up until now but now things are going to change. Are you one of those folks who believes that?
I think so. The one thing is in this political era. Conventional wisdom is continually turned upside down but it definitely seems like, there’s definitely a political will, a pretty wide political will to make sure there’s more transparency in terms of political activity, and then it goes on up the chain in terms of a lot of Silicon Valley companies and issues about regulation and alleged monopoly or duopoly power. The trajectory seems pretty set again, like, who knows?
Yeah. I’m a little confused by it, because it seems like look, the Republicans are against regulation, and during the Obama era, Washington really didn’t touch Silicon Valley at all. Google never got touched. Facebook, no one even went there. It’s a little difficult for me to figure out how this is something that someone wants to spend a political capital on, but I keep hearing from smart people including you that says no, it’s going to happen, so I guess we’ll see.
There’s something interesting going on in the Trump movement though, especially when it comes to Silicon Valley, there’s some hostility. Trump himself has hinted for instance at Amazon, does it need more regulation? Politics doesn’t line up anymore the way we used to think they did on issues.
He campaigned about everyone, and he didn’t campaign against Silicon Valley. He campaigned against Mexico and China, who are good fat political targets to go after.
He did, but some of his supporters did. They said Google is skewing the election results for Hillary Clinton. Facebook is hiding conservative views. The counter to some of the liberal complaints. There is a part of the Trump movement that is very anti-Silicon Valley. Very anti-Silicon Valley.
I knew this is going to happen. We were going to talk for 15 minutes, and I was going to regret not having you in for a full 45 minutes or an hour, so here’s what we’ll do. We’ll bring you in later this year. You’ll come sit down. We’ll sit face to face and have a real conversation in person. Sound good?
That’s awesome. I think my voice will sound much better in studio.
You sound great right now, and you will sound better in person, so Jim Rutenberg, thank you for your time. We could find you with the New York Times, on Twitter, are you on Facebook?
Yeah. I’m on all of the above, @JimRutenberg on Twitter, and Jim Rutenberg on Facebook.
We have a very savvy audience. They’ll be able to figure out how to find you. Thank you for your time, Jim. Talk to you soon.
Thanks so much.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.